The Crown Province’s Shibbøleðr

Newcomers and neighbors of the Crown Province inevitably run into a tricky question: how do you pronounce Østgarðr?

There are (at least) three potential pitfalls packed into this one word, and even many long-time residents habitually get one or two of them wrong.

Caveat: Please note that I am not an linguist, nor an expert in Old Norse; the below is merely my amateur understanding of the subject — feel free to comment below if I’ve badly mangled any of this.

The Letter Ø

The stroked O (Ø/ø) is is the trickiest part of the word, as the corresponding sound isn’t common in American English. Phoneticists describe this as a “close-mid front rounded vowel,” meaning that your mouth is positioned as if you were making the sound “eh” but your lips are pursed  or puckered.

If you shape your lips like you were going to make the vowel sound in “two,” but then actually voice the vowel sound in “egg,” you’re in the right ballpark. If you’ve learned French, this is the vowel sound at the end of “bleu;” in German it’s written as ö in words like “schön.”

The Letter Ð

The letter Eth (Ð/ð) was used in northwest Europe during the medieval period for one of the sounds that we now write as “th,” which phoneticists call a “voiced dental fricative.”

If you can resist the temptation to read this as a letter D, it’s easy to pronounce because it’s reasonably common in English: think of the sound at the end of “smooth” or “breathe.”

(By contrast, the word “math” or the name “Garth” both end with the softer “voiceless dental fricative,” which medieval folks wrote as Þ rather than ð; if you gently rest your fingertips on your throat you can feel your vocal cords remain still when you say “math” but vibrate when you say the final sound in “smooth” — you want those vibrations when you make the sound at the end of Østgarðr.)

The Trailing R

Trailing Rs are a common feature of many Old Norse words because it is the nominative suffix for masculine nouns.

English doesn’t have nominative suffixes, but you can think of them as parallel to the way we use the genitive suffix ’s to show possession — in English, we would write “Ty drinks” (nominative unmarked) and “Ty’s cup” (genitive ’s marker) while in Old Norse we’d write “Tyr drekka” (nominative -r marker) and “Tys skál” (genitive -s marker).

The precise sound used for this purpose changed over the centuries and across the thousand-mile expanse of Old Norse speakers. Earlier speakers might have pronounced it as a “zh” sound (ʒ, a “voiced palato-alveolar fricative“), which transitioned into a soft “r” sound. In normal speech, for a word like Miklagarðr (the Old Norse name for Constantinople), the trailing r would likly have been softened into a nearly-imperceptible sound or dropped altogether. In the centuries after the Viking Era, as Old Norse evolved into modern languages (and loan words were incorporated into other languages such as English) the sound they each used diverged, becoming variously silent, or a schwa (“soft grunt”), or a harder “ur” sound.

Because we’re typically saying or writing the Province’s name in English, a good argument could be made that we should lean towards making the trailing r silent because it doesn’t play a meaningful role in English grammar.

Putting It Together

So, given all that, how should we pronounce Østgarðr?

The good news is that there are no language police, and nobody is going to throw you out of a Society event because you say the name differently than they do.

But if you want to make the extra effort to pronounce the name in a way that might be more medievally authentic, you can be on the lookout for pitfalls around the three trouble spots referenced above:

  • The Ø is not a “oo” sound — “Øst-” sounds closer to “best” or “bust” rather than “boost.”
  • The ð is a “th” sound —”-garð-” is somewhere between “garth” and “guard.”
  • The final r is silent, or very nearly so — “-garðr” might sound like “garth,” or maybe a little like “gartha,” but definitely not “garth-ur.”

In all honesty, I’m terrible at making unfamiliar sounds, and my Old Norse accent is horrible, but for what it’s worth, here’s the way I typically say the province’s name:

(Update: Thanks to Þorfinn Hróðgeirsson for pointing out an error in my description of the Norse eth. And thanks to Zahra de Andaluzia for helping with examples of the Ø and trailing r.)

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